State regulators will propose an ambitious new set of safety measures -- including increased training, stiffer penalties and online access to more licensing records -- in an effort to reverse the sharp rise in child deaths across Minnesota's in-home day-care system.

The proposal, which will move to the Legislature in coming weeks, would make inspection records for thousands of day-care homes available online for the first time, giving parents the tools to weed out incompetent or unsafe child-care providers.

The proposals follow an investigation last year by the Star Tribune, which uncovered a sharp rise in child deaths over the past five years at in-home day cares -- many involving infants placed in unsafe sleep environments or other safety breakdowns. The newspaper also found that important licensing records documenting a provider's safety history -- available to parents in many other states -- are not always publicly accessible in Minnesota, leaving children at risk.

"If parents are able to have access to information about child care, we know they are going to take advantage of it," said Jerry Kerber, inspector general for the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). "We recognize the need."

The proposal's main goal is to emphasize and enforce safe sleep practices across the system of 11,000 in-home providers.

Among the recommendations:

• Stiffer penalties for day-care providers who violate state safety standards.

• Training in safe-sleep practices for infants will be required annually; it is currently required every five years.

• Providers would have to complete more training before getting licensed and more ongoing training, including courses on health and safe supervision.

• Providers would be required to check on sleeping infants every 30 minutes and use a baby monitor when they are not in the same room. Checks would be required every 15 minutes when an infant is new to a day care, which can be the riskiest period for sleep deaths.

The Minnesota Licensed Family Child Care Association, which represents thousands of in-home day-care providers, has not taken a formal position on the proposal. But its executive director, Katy Chase, said she did not anticipate major opposition from her group.

"We're all about safety, health and professional development," said Chase, who has been discussing the proposals for weeks with DHS officials.

Consistent enforcement

Kerber said regulators listened to provider concerns during a series of stakeholder meetings last fall and incorporated them into the proposal. Many expressed concerns about inconsistent enforcement across 87 counties, where local licensing officials carry out state policies. One recommendation that has already drawn some concern from providers is a requirement to carry liability insurance.

The proposal also calls for increased training of county and state licensors to bring consistency across the system. Budget cuts in recent years had reduced training for county licensors, Kerber said. His agency will use the state website to improve communication and directly respond to questions from local providers and licensors.

Regulators briefly considered a proposal last fall to reduce the number of children each provider could watch, an effort to improve the quality of supervision.

That set off wide opposition by in-home providers, who said fewer children under care would mean less income and put them out of business. Kerber said regulators chose not to include it in the reform package.

Kerber said the proposal he will send to the Legislature is targeted at decreasing the number of children dying in day-care homes.

"I'm hopeful people will find this is a reasoned, balanced approach to a really serious issue," Kerber said.

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777